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OPINION: Do alternative varieties sell, or are we still a Shiraz & Chardonnay nation?

November 8, 2022

Have we finally crossed the rubicon for alternative varieties in Australian wine? Can we finally start to call grapes like Mencia, Vermentino or Gamay just varieties rather than treat them differently?

In this feature, the freshly minted 2022 Wine Communicators of Australia (WCA) wine media cadet and marketer Tijana Laganin has dived into the issue, calling on a queen of Australian alternative varieties, Corrina Wright, for a winemaking perspective.

There are two definitions for alternative. One, ‘another possibility or choice’. And two, ‘activities that depart from or challenge traditional norms’.

The latter is what people often refer to as a ‘phase’.

I’d be lying to say I am not guilty of a few phases.

There was when I coloured the tips of my hair pink, only to realise it looked like I’d leant into a side of tomato sauce. Or the alternative music stage as a teenager. To this day, I can still recite Bullet for my Valentine’s 'Tears don't fall'.

Fortunately, this was just a phase.

Hugh Hamilton's Saperavi. Source: Hugh Hamilton Instagram.

Can the same be said for the world of wine? Are alternative varietals a ‘phase’, or more permanent? Will steak and Saperavi become an Aussie convention with Hugh Hamilton as the pioneer? There have been stranger things.

However, one thing needs clarifying before Blaufränkisch and Agiorgitiko become regular pairings with Tuesday’s spag bol.

Well, two, after the pronunciation…

First, we must decide which definition of ‘alternative’ to follow. Unfortunately, thanks to an ego battle within the industry, alternative varietals have become symbols for the unorthodox. It's a political divide, with the right-wing traditionalists and the left-wing progressives embracing new varieties.

It's ironic given that wine is meant to cross political boundaries...

To make any breakthrough in a country dominated by ‘noble varieties’ like Shiraz or Chardonnay, we must redefine alternatives as ‘another possibility or choice’, and someone on such a crusade is fifth-generation vigneron Corrina Wright of Olivers Taranga.

The first thing I noticed when speaking with Corrina was her realism. In a world of shrinking attention spans, it was refreshing to hear someone with a ‘long term’ vision. Alternative varieties are not planted as trends, with new varieties a 'game of patience. It is three years before your first crop, five before a decent one, followed by years of ongoing quality improvements'.

Corrina Wright. Source: Oliver's Taranga Instagram.

So why introduce varieties people have never heard of? For Wright, it is a show of respect to the land, influenced by 'environmental sustainability and lifestyle'.

We go back to this long-term vision.

As a recent study by the University of Adelaide suggests, climate change is a 'major challenge, threatening the sustainability and the cultivation of grapes for wines'. But the paper comes with an answer 'to endure the challenge of climate change, the Australian wine industry could adopt new wine grape varieties more tolerant of these pending conditions'.

A trailblazer for such, McLaren Vale has become synonymous with Mediterranean ‘alternative’ varieties: a tapestry of Barbera, Vermentino, Montepulciano, Nero d’Avola and Fiano. As Wright puts it, the key is finding something that 'makes sense in the region'. For the Vale, drought susceptibility and heat have seen grapes with high natural acidity and tolerance for hot, dry conditions flourish.

As president of the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show, Wright has witnessed this explosion of grape diversity in action, with the show receiving 800 entries this year across approximately 100 different varieties. She puts it frankly, 'some will hit, some will miss' – a thing Corrina and the team will wager as they expand their range to include Falanghina.

Admittedly I had to Google that one.

When asked if she thought we were a ‘Shiraz and Chardonnay nation’, Wright acknowledged the settlement of our industry on the back of these varieties. After James Busby brought back Shiraz clippings, we seemed to settle and avoid branching out (excuse the pun).

The University of Adelaide has a name for drinkers who don’t stray beyond the grape norm, calling them ‘wine neophobes’ – individuals who are 'less willing to try unfamiliar wines or wines made from varieties they have not heard of'.

Exposure therapy is a psychological treatment that helps people confront their phobia by creating a safe environment to ‘expose’ them to the things they avoid … Oliver’s Taranga can attest to the success of such practices in their cellar door. Despite a 'slow start', hand selling is the most effective way to introduce many to the glories of Mencía, Fiano and Vermentino.

For Wright, these ‘neophobes’ provide the greatest reward, and she recounts the story of Sharon.

Ten years ago, at a Women in Wine event, Sharon was introduced by her friends as a steadfast Adelaide Hills Chardonnay drinker. By the end of the event, Corrina was ambushed by the women gushing that Sharon 'LOVED the Fiano'.

Oliver's Taranga Fiano. Source: Oliver's Taranga Instagram

With combined patience and 'exposure therapy', Oliver’s Taranga has gained a reputation as one of the country’s finest Fiano producers.

Interestingly, the numbers suggest the hurdles to more alternative acceptance don’t lie in taste.

The University of Adelaide conducted a preference trial with 113 Australian red consumers - comprised of 'nine purportedly drought tolerant red grape varieties emerging in Australia' (Graciano, Aglianico, Durif, Negroamaro, Mecía, Montepulciano, Nero d’Avola, Barbera and Touriga) and one conventional Shiraz. Based on a 9-point Likert scale, scores indicated that 'all wines were liked by the consumers' with 'the most liked wine'… a Montepulciano.

The conclusion of this study goes on to note that the alternative varieties used 'possessed a vast array of sensory attributes to suit all tests – suggesting that all wines were going to be well received by the consumers'.

Wright summarises it perfectly, 'as a wine-producing nation, this is still a young journey', and for alternative varieties, they are still in their infant stage. So first things first, our industry must redefine these wines as a substitute, and only then will we see a shift.